Writing a life story

By Jerri Strozier | Apr 16, 2014

Just as there are storytellers in the world, I am a story listener. Stories are everywhere and all around us, but in our rush of busyness, we seldom stop to hear them. They let us inside the world of another person. They remind us we are similar and different at the same time.

Older adults should all be writing their stories down, leaving these as their legacy. It can seem a daunting task, but should not be. Writing is a craft. Gifted writers can write like birds can fly — their words soar and take us places. But I have seen ordinary people, non-writers, tap into the same wellspring of power.

Within a few pages I have observed the writer get lost while the story is found and takes shape and is born in its entirety, perfectly balanced, believable. Their authenticity resonates, strikes a chord in the reader and offers deep refreshment. Good writing especially happens as people age and reflect back upon their lives. Why is this?

Dr. Gene Cohen, author of "The Mature Mind," notes that telling one’s story is part of the process of growing old, of looking back and making sense of one’s life, while continuing the process of discovery and change.

He shows that in spite of the problems that accompany aging, older adults often improve in their overall performance of living and that their intelligence continues to develop and grow. His conclusion is that time and experience work a sort of magic that results in mature thinking. We know it as wisdom.

How does one begin to tell his/her own life story? In my experience, the writing process doesn’t need writing prompts or books with questions, just commitment, courage and a chunk of time consistently spent in the endeavor.

Over a decade ago, at the same time I began leading writing groups for older adults, I got chickens. My little backyard flock has generously volunteered to share how to write a life story.

The best things in life have humble beginnings. Start small. Write the story the day holds for you. The energy of that story is like an egg waiting to be hatched. Try sitting with it. Listen to what it has to say, write down your memories, or share them with someone who can write them for you.

Just like this little chick who will grow over time, simply begin with a cheep. Don’t worry about the order – that will come later. The important thing is to begin.

It is only natural to want to show our best face in public, but hold back from too much gloss. Keep the gritty part. Living isn’t easy. We are going to get dirty; it’s a fact of life. Be generous in sharing the whole truth. Reveal it; then shake it off. It is good animal nature to do so.

You can’t include everybody, but choose the ones who meant the most and tell how they shaped your life. There is very little we’ve done all by ourselves. Give credit where it is due. Friendships are what get us through. Share the love.

You’ve earned your bragging rights. Crow a little! Explain how you accomplished a feat by showing what you overcame. I met a man who had made good, and his family warned me it was his only story (they rolled their eyes). I sat down with him and listened with fresh ears, then asked some questions.

He took a new angle never before told: immigrant parents speaking broken English with no formal education and thinking his best hope would be to sell groceries. He exclaimed, “I showed the world that I was more!”

Finally, someone had listened to how far he’d come and what he had overcome, saw his determination, understood his courage. Then his pride shifted to include his heritage. He let the old story go and moved on to new ones. Everyone crowed along with him.

In the decade I’ve spent helping people write their stories, I have been impressed at the variety, the originality and the way they chronicle change. History is conveyed through everyday eyes, yet there is nothing common about stories told when the scale of history comes from the one you love. And no two eggs are alike.

There is nothing so permanent as words on a page to reveal who we are and to chronicle our journey. The value of the pursuit is held by the writer, but the gift is for the beloved.

Our passion in life is the legacy that will outlive all others. Share the memories of yourself, and also share the observations of what we cherish in those we care about. Love is the eternal gift and is indeed indestructible.

Jerri Strozier of Asheville turns stories into books. You can check out her work and find out more at www.lifestoriesinc.com